EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Big plays in practice have always been part of Minnesota Vikings cornerback Chris Cook’s first three NFL seasons, plays like he made Tuesday in Minnesota’s practice open to the media.
Cook knocked away two passes from Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder intended for Jerome Simpson, once seeing the ball go through his hands before later intercepting another pass in Simpson’s direction that Cook took the other way down the sideline.
The team’s first pick in the 2010 draft in the second round, Cook has always tantalized with his potential. He’s displayed his talent in games too. Yet his career to this point has been, at best, lacking.
Cook’s experience has been limited to 22 games in his three seasons. As he also well knows, those interceptions that come in practice have been missing from his game film.
“I really don’t think about it,” Cook said Tuesday. “I know that I don’t have one, but I really don’t think about it. As long as I’m out there, I’m not giving up plays. So that’s a positive thing.”
Cook is still waiting for his first career interception. He has said before that it will feel good when he finally gets his first, but he isn’t frustrated by the fact. Even when he’s reminded how close he’s come, such as last season when he had a 61-yard interception return nullified by a penalty.
“I’m just focusing on technique and doing the small things right,” Cook said. “The big plays will come when you focus on that. … I don’t feel like I’m that far off. It’s a game of inches. A breakup can turn into a pick with two or three inches. Like I said, I feel good about my game so far, where it is. I’m just focusing on little things and just keeping the ball rolling.”
The Vikings could use those plays from Cook next season, but they really need him to be on the field.
His injury list, which has included a broken arm and surgery on both knees, is also part of Cook’s tenure with Minnesota, as is an off-field issue that limited him to six games in 2011. A broken arm last season caused him to miss six games, but he still led the team with 14 passes defensed.
Cook, 26, is also the dean of the Vikings’ cornerbacks and second-longest tenured member of the secondary. Safety Jamarca Sanford — 27 years old and with another year under his belt — and Cook are suddenly the veterans of Minnesota’s young secondary.
“It makes me feel old, but it’s a good role for me to have,” Cook said. “I’m definitely accepting of the leadership role that I have in the secondary now, and I’m just looking forward to a great season for my secondary and my defense as a whole.”
Cook’s position as the “old” man among the cornerbacks led coach Leslie Frazier to speak personally with Cook after Antoine Winfield’s departure to the Seattle Seahawks was finally decided.
“He’s in a different role now and I wanted him to understand that,” Frazier said. “I wanted him to look around and just see how much the landscape has changed from his rookie year, and more is going to be required of him this season from a leadership standpoint as well as production on the field.”
Frazier also stressed the importance of Cook not only helping young corners like rookie Xavier Rhodes and second-year player Josh Robinson, but the team also needs Cook in uniform.
“We need him to stay on the field,” Frazier said. “Sometimes the health issues you can’t avoid. Sometimes things just happen, but we just need him to do the right thing at all times and understand that there are some young guys that are now looking up to him. It’s not the reverse, where he was looking up to other guys. People are looking up to him in the classroom and at practice as well.”
Frazier said Cook needs to carry over those strong practice habits and offer consistency, particularly health-wise, on the field.
Cook, who said he was a captain in college at Virginia, accepts the role and feels it’s the next step in his NFL progression.
“It makes me feel good that they come to me and ask me questions, because I was that guy when I first got here,” Cook said. “I was the guy my first couple years asking Antoine all the questions.”
Cook called Winfield a “living legend” and now it’s his responsibility to accept a larger portion of Winfield’s role as the team’s top corner and secondary leader.
Maybe a few interceptions, and health, will come along the way.
“That’s been a priority since my rookie year, when I hurt my knee,” Cook said of staying healthy. “But I feel like this year will definitely be a good year for me. I’m just looking forward to it.”